A Man Called Adam, a Mensch Called Satchmo

Last night on TCM, Caroline and I watched the 1966 film A Man Called Adam. In the introduction, host Eddie Muller mentioned that the film’s protagonist Adam Johnston, played by Sammy Davis, Jr., was based “very loosely” on Miles Davis. Muller didn’t mention that in 1966 Miles Davis was alive (if not well)[1] and had started a relationship with Cicely Tyson, who interestingly enough, plays Adam Johnson’s love interest.

The movie features Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong portraying a fictional character, Willie “Sweet Daddy” Ferguson. Ossie Davis, and Frank Sinatra, Jr. also co-star. In addition, Mel Tormé bops in for a number, which, for me, is the highlight of several superb musical performances, including one featuring Satchmo himself. Benny Carter composed songs for the movie and served as musical director and conductor.

Although some of the acting isn’t exactly topnotch (Frank Sinatra, Jr. was not nominated for an academy award), those above-mentioned performances, interesting racial dynamics, and its pivotal place in the timeline of civil right make the movie worth watching.  It’s a period of transition: some characters look ‘50s with their skinny black ties, others ‘70s with afros and pointy sideburns. For the most part, white and blacks dig each other, whether they be musicians or audience members in the jazz clubs.

Adam, like Miles himself, is a demon-haunted trumpeter. Years before, he drunkenly crashed his car, killing his wife and child. In addition, society’s underlying racial injustice stokes his anger.  He alchemizes this heartache and rage, blows them out of his horn in soaring, anguished, increasingly frenetic solos, syncopated banshee wails that can raise the hair on your arms (if you haven’t waxed them away).

Oh yes, he’s harassed by the police who want to see his arms, because, after all, being black is a sure sign of heroin addiction. Adam doesn’t take shit from anyone – though he does dump bulldozer loads on his agents, friends, and fellow musicians  –  and for a diminutive man gives the cops a fairly good fight.[2]

Ultimately, though, I don’t dig Adam. Genius, in my book, doesn’t excuse you from treating non-geniuses like lesser beings, doesn’t give you a license to shatter time-honored traditions of civilized decorum, not to mention nearly full whiskey bottles.

No, give me Louis Armstrong, who rose from poverty, did delinquent time at the Colored Waif’s Home in New Orleans, rose to prominence, became an international ambassador for jazz, but was no Uncle Tom. He called President Eisenhower “two-faced” and gutless” during Little Rock’s desegregation and cancelled a State Department tour to the Soviet Union. “The way they’re treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell,” he said as he pulled out of the show.

Anyway, if you’re into jazz or civil rights history, check it out. 


[1] In ’66 Miles spent three months in a hospital because of a liver infection. 

[2] Perhaps not coincidentally, Philip Marlowe, the protagonist of the noir 1953 novel I’m now reading, also gets worked over by the cops. Hmmmmm. 

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